"How long the crystallization takes is hard to say," admits Dr. Jörg Benz, Pharma Research scientist at the Swiss global healthcare company Roche. "Initially, it's simple trial and error," he explains. "It can happen within hours that the crystals are formed and grown, or it can happen within weeks, or even years." Though Benz is speaking of the creation of synthetic organic molecules that Roche mines for new medicines, his words might just as aptly describe the design process at the heart of Confrontations: Contemporary Dutch Design, an exhibition which underwent its own crystallization process in the Vitra Design Museum Gallery over the course of 12- 16 June, and remains on view through 2 September. Responding to Gerrit Rietveld — A Revolution of Space currently in the Museum's main galleries, Confrontations pairs five young Netherlands-based design teams whose experimental methods echo Rietveld's — Lucas Maassen, 2012Architecten, Studio Formafantasma, Studio Wieki Somers and Dirk Vander Kooij — with companies from the museum's local region — Roche, Vitra, Doris Wicki, Confiserie Rafael Mutter and A. Raymond. The collaborations culminated throughout the week of Art Basel, when each team took turns putting the finishing touches on their product between 12:00 – 18:00 at center stage in the gallery.
It is 12:15 on Friday, 15 June and the day's featured project designer, Wieki Somers, is nowhere to be found. The exhibition curator, Amelie Znidaric, reassures viewers that the performance will start momentarily before scuttling off to find Somers. On the wall of the gallery a clock with a double pendulum — one pendulum attached to another — reminds visitors that, while the Swiss and Germans are known for their timely precision, Confrontations celebrates experiment and its associated chaos. Catalogtree, the Dutch studio behind the exhibition's design, chose a double pendulum to be the motif for the exhibition, as its inherently unpredictable movement embodies the very essence of experiment.
"A clock operating on the basis of a double pendulum will always be either a little fast or slow," they explain. With a few more swings of the pendulum, Somers and her blue-coated, blue-clogged team appear and things roll into motion. As the designer — who collaborated with Confiserie Rafael Mutter to produce wheels of chocolate weighing close to 200 kilos that can be shaved to reveal different patterns by a rotating blade like a Tête de Moine cheese — cranks things into gear, the curator looks visibly relieved. "Wieki wanted everything to be perfect at the beginning" remarks Znidaric, "which is completely understandable, but central to the exhibition is the notion of process: things will start off unpolished and take shape throughout the afternoon." The course of true experiment never did run smooth.
Somers is not the only designer to be challenged by the process of relinquishing control. Lucas Maassen, who is perhaps best known for his "furniture factory" collection created by Lucas Maassen and Sons — namely Thijme (10), Julian (8) and Maris (8) — further explores the familial vein by making his parents central figures in his collaboration with Roche. An introduction to Roche's state of the art Drug Discovery technologies sparked a desire within Maassen to make an object using the same biological processes that created him. Probing this possibility, Roche crystallized synthetic DNA — the basic code of all life forms — into a structure that could be viewed under a microscope. The resulting shapes, present in each and every one of us — including Maassen's parents and the sister he might have had were it not for the dissolution of their marriage — were subsequently magnified and reproduced into 1,000 unique shapes by Viennese crystal manufacturer Lobmeyr. Lucas then invited his parents to reunite in the gallery in order to design and assemble Valerie, My Crystal Sister, a chandelier entitled according to the name he would have been given were he born a girl. The performance is further supplemented by an equally sparkling video of interviews with Roche scientists and Lucas' parents; intertwining the science of molecular bonds with the art of emotional bonds. As with much of Maassen's work, the simplicity of its design belies the complexity its poetry.
Like the Eames' 1968 film Powers of Ten, featured in the neighboring Vitra store, Valerie, My Crystal Sister takes us on a journey of magnitudes. Orbiting the gallery on Tuesday, Maassen tries his best to untangle himself from the crystallization process. "It feels strange to stand by and watch my parents work," he confesses: "and I am nervous to put them on display in such an intimate way." Strand by strand, Valerie takes form in the hands of Maassen's parents, with a palpably caring sense of purpose. Maassen is joined on the sidelines by his stepfather, who, camera about his neck, is clearly eager to find his own supporting role. Gesturing to Maassen's parents he muses: "this is the real confrontation."
"Confrontation doesn't necessarily have to be aggressive," Znidaric asserts, addressing the exhibition's title. "It's simply juxtaposing two opposites, which is what I am doing." Be that the national cultures of Dutch and German, or the professional cultures of industry and design, she notes: "I wanted both sides to open up, to see where the other was coming from, and to really collaborate." This type of provocation seems well-suited to Vitra, a company whose archive provided the initial impulse to found the museum and which built its reputation on industrious experimentations with design icons like Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson, Verner Panton, Jean Prouvé and Jasper Morrison. As further testament to the company's penchant for risk-taking, the Vitra campus, home to the Vitra Design Museum, is also home to many architectural firsts: Zaha Hadid's first realized work, Tadao Ando's first building outside of Japan, and Frank Gehry's first building in Europe.
"How a company chooses to translate its values into design is enormously important," notes CEO Rolf Fehlbaum in a Fast Company interview. A visit to the Vitra campus reveals that Fehlbaum — who views the entrepreneur as both social and cultural leader — does not take this task lightly. At the company's Summer Party on Wednesday, 13 June, Fehlbaum surveys the museum gallery as his children play on a nearby tree swing — part of Eamescape, 2012Architecten's Confrontations collaboration with Vitra. He is pleased by the collaboration taking shape in front of him. "I didn't want established designers because I think at a certain point people find their way of doing things and many times younger designers are more open to experimentation," Znidaric confirms, revealing a kindred predisposition for pushing boundaries. "It could have been a giant failure," she muses, "but the unpredictability is really part of this."
"It has been great," Dirk Vander Kooij enthuses. "I have really benefitted by having Amelie pushing me— as a designer, you need someone challenging you to stretch yourself," he explains. "I have asked Amelie if she could continue to do so even after the end of the exhibition." Importantly, Confrontations challenges not only the designer and producer, but also the consumer. By transforming the museum into a laboratory for experiment, the viewer — used to witnessing the perfected product — is involved in the process; the crystallization. This is the potential of the museum: to make us all integral to the process of making — be it of object or meaning — and to challenge us to re-examine what we have made. "There is no such thing as a failed experiment," Buckminster Fuller states, "only experiments with unexpected outcomes." "Unexpected intrusions of beauty—" concludes Saul Bellow: "This is what life is." Kimberlie Birks (@kimbirks)